Virginia’s only Muslim-American state lawmaker resigned from his Democratic leadership post Friday and called for a “massive overhaul” in the party to reconnect with working-class voters after Donald Trump’s presidential victory.
Del. Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, a Democratic enclave in Southwest Virginia amid a sea of rural counties that voted overwhelmingly for Trump, stepped down from his position as secretary of the House of Delegates Democratic Caucus, a minor leadership role he had held since last December.
In a phone interview, the 35-year-old health care consultant said Democrats “fought a campaign against hate and fear with hate and fear” and undermined their ability to communicate with “everyday Americans.”
“All we did was demonize Donald Trump and try to scare everybody,” said Rasoul, a member of the House since 2014.
Rasoul called himself a “proud Democrat,” but said “the establishment does not want to change.” Rather than change the platform, Rasoul said, the party needs to rethink its communication strategy to build trust and listen to people’s concerns.
Hillary Clinton’s use of the word “deplorables” to describe some Trump supporters, Rasoul said, was the “biggest example” of the party’s attitude of moral condemnation.
“That shows us that there’s a disconnect,” Rasoul said. “These are our neighbors. Our friends. Our family. How can we think of people that way?”
Trump’s inflammatory comments about minorities and women throughout the campaign dismayed many who now worry what his presidency may bring. For Trump critics, those fears have been realized in his selection of former Breitbart News chief Steve Bannon, a Richmond native and Virginia Tech graduate, as a top White House strategist.
Asked if he believes people have reason to fear a Trump presidency, Rasoul said the Muslim-American community is experiencing that feeling “more than most.”
“And what we need to be able to do is of course condemn the outright racism and bigotry and work hard against the policies that can be coming that will put people of color and other minorities into certain buckets,” Rasoul said. “But we need to be real. Not everybody that voted for Trump is a racist and a bigot.”
Clinton won 56.8 percent of the vote in Roanoke and kept Virginia in the Democratic column for the third straight presidential election. Democrats control all statewide offices, a position the party will have to defend next year during races for governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.
Republicans have control of both legislative chambers. Democrats are badly outnumbered in the House, leaving them little power to push through their own legislation without GOP support.
As caucus secretary, Rasoul was responsible mainly for administrative tasks such as keeping records of meeting minutes.
“We regret Del. Rasoul’s decision to no longer be a part of the House Democratic Caucus leadership team, but we know that he will continue to represent the people of Roanoke well in the House of Delegates and look forward to his continued contributions to the caucus and the commonwealth,” the caucus said in a statement.
Rasoul said his call for change doesn’t necessarily mean specific action at the General Assembly, but rather a shift in how Democrats conduct themselves.
“When we connect with such a kind of pompous attitude — that of course our liberal agenda is correct, it’s better for you — that’s not how leadership works,” he said.